Leo Fender – The Man Behind The Brand

Leo Fender & The Inventor’s Torment

Here we are, more than 70 years since Leo Fender first revolutionised the guitar, and players are still wringing new sounds out of his creations. The Fender Jim Root Stratotcaster and Telecaster, the Johnny Marr Jaguar, the Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster, and of course classic models for players like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, all serve as reminders that the early Fender designs are incredibly adaptable, able to be tweaked and refined for different musical purposes yet still baring the distinctive traits that the original designers designed into the instruments all those years ago.

But Fender’s designs were not easily won. It took much trial and error, theories, tests, discoveries, setbacks, redesigns and rethinks before the guitars we know and love found their way to us. That development continued on, of course, and Leo Fender was further refining his designs right up until his death in 1991. And it was all accomplished around a man who wasn’t a musician: Fender didn’t actually play guitar, although he understood the importance of surrounding himself with those who did – such as Western Swing guitarist Bill Carson, who suggested the body relief cuts that made the Stratocaster more comfortable than the slab-like Telecaster.

But much of Fender’s drive to create was informed by the music he wanted to hear. As devoted fan of country music, much of Fender’s early success was driven by Leo’s desire to provide instruments for the genre he loved. “We were trying to get a tone like you get with the steel guitar, because a steel was so much cleaner in sound than an acoustic,” Fender is quoted as saying in The Story Of The Fender Stratocaster by Ray Minhinnett and Bob Young. “We wanted to have something that you could hear that had sustain and a lack of feedback.” He cheekily added that the instrument had to be strong enough for musicians to use them in a fight in a club if they had to. “If you get clobbered over the head with one of those, you know you’ve been hit!” Fender said.

And let us not forget the brilliant flash of creativity that led Fender to create the electric bass. Before Fender, there was no such thing. Bass was a big instrument that stood upright and took up the same area as a small water craft. Then Fender came along and, with the original Precision Bass, turned it into something you could sling over your shoulder. Initially adopted by country guitarists, it wasn’t long – literally just a couple of years – before the electric bass became a standard instrument for virtually every band everywhere!

But not all of Fender’s design hunches were smash hits: Leo originally wanted to build necks without truss rods, believing them unnecessary in an instrument that was made well enough. And he felt that the act of channeling out a neck and installing a truss rod would impede the instrument’s natural sustain. A few Nocasters (Telecasters with the name removed due to a copyright claim on the word by Gretsch) and two-pickup Eqsuires were made without truss rods in the early 50s before it was decided that the extra care needed to create such a stable neck without reinforcement was too time consuming.

And the vibrato bridge, such a key feature of the Strat, took a while to perfect too. The initial design was similar in spirit to Paul Bigbsy’s famous bridge, with a moving tailpiece and roller saddles. But the unit was so lightweight that it pretty much killed the ability of the string energy to transfer to the body, and the guitar sounded awful. As Bill Carson says in The Story Of The Fender Stratocaster, “I took this guitar to a job, hooked it up to play it, and it sounded like a cheap banjo, the sound decayed so quick.” Carson phoned Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares to complain that they’d killed his pickups, only to be told that the pickups weren’t touched. It was a valuable lesson in the interaction between the mass of the tremolo system and the transfer of string vibration. Five thousand dollars worth of custom tooling was scratched and Fender went back to the drawing board.

It was Carson who suggested six individual saddles for the Stratocaster bridge, but the initial units adjusted from the opposite side to where we perform this action today: on the pickup side of the bridge rather than the back. This made it almost impossible to intonate, so it was flipped 180 degrees. Carson also says he was behind the decision to switch from two pickups in the Telecaster to three in the Stratocaster – although he wanted four. 

Some of Fender’s refinements were improvements in some ways but a step back (or at least sideways) in others.  For example, although the Telecaster’s original two-strings-per-saddle, three-saddle design was eventually superseded by a more intonatable six-saddle version, players lost a little of the tonal mojo created by the interaction between the strings on each shared saddle. With each pair vibrating with each other, and on a much bigger saddle, the sound was fuller and snappier – more ‘Telecastery.’ Swap those out for individual saddles and you get greater control over intonation, but a little of the magic is traded off.

Like any great inventor, Leo Fender wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong, but he also had the conviction to doggedly pursue his ideas when he felt that he could be ‘more right.’ And that’s what led to his work with the Music Man company in the mid 1970s, and then his establishment of G&L Guitars with George Fullerton in 1979. 

Music Man and G&L

Leo and co were never afraid to test an idea, refine it if it could be made better, or scrap it if they were just not on the right track. But it didn’t stop at Fender. After selling the Fender guitar company to CBS in 1985, Leo went on to work as a consultant for Music Man before starting G&L, and the innovations didn’t stop.

One of Fender’s more revolutionary creations was the electric bass guitar. First released as the Fender Precision Bass in 1951, it wasn’t long before this instrument became a core feature of virtually every band since (notwithstanding the occasional White Stripes or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). A refinement of this instrument was very high on Fender’s list when he returned to the guitar making biz in 1974. After selling Fender to CBS, he signed a non-compete clause, and remained a consultant to Fender for a few years. He formed his own company in 1971, called Tri-Sonic, and changed the name to Music Man in 1974 ahead of the expiry date for the non-compete clause.

The Music Man StingRay bass (with input from Forrest White, Sterling Ball and Tom Walker) built on the Precision Bass in many ways, but presented a major innovation in the from of active electronics, which had never before been used on a production line bass. The StingRay featured a two-band active equaliser pared with a high-output humbucking pickup. Today the model can be purchased with three-band active EQ or even a piezo pickup for acoustic sounds (or just blending in further high-end clarity). But in the 70s the ability to boost both highs and lows was directly in phase with the direction bass playing was taking as players explored the slap and pop technique. Perhaps the best contemporary example of this is Louis Johnson from The Brothers Johnson, who you can hear doing his thing in this lesson video:

https://youtube.com/watch?v=CslkVhOoE2U

Less successful at the time was the Music Man HD-130 Reverb amplifier, which was designed to compete with the Fender Twin. It did this very well, but unfortunately the Twin was falling out of favour with the guitarists of the day, who were steadily migrating to Marshalls as their gain requirements increased. The HD-130 Reverb did have a few fans however, including Eric Clapton and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.

When internal stresses – largely due to low sales – prompted Fender to grow weary of Music Man, he started G&L with fellow Fender alumni George Fullerton. It was here that Fender and Fullerton really went to town on refining and improving the early Fender designs. New Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups were created which combined a ceramic bar magnet with adjustable soft iron pole pieces. Before that, pickups were typically made with warmer-sounding Alnico magnets and with immovable pole pieces. The ceramic magnets and increased control over string volume allowed the MFD pickups a higher level of clarity than earlier models. G&L also offered the MFD Z-Coil pickup, which features an offset design similar to that used in the split Precision Bass pickup, moving the treble part of the pickup closer to the bridge and the bass side closer to the neck, enhancing the clarity of the former and the warmth of the latter.

G&L also pioneered several bridge innovations which would be vast improvements on earlier versions. These tweaks included the Dual-Fulcrum Vibrato and the Saddle-Lock Bridge. The Dual-Fulcrum uses two pivot points to anchor the bridge to the body, rather than the traditional six screws. This reduced interference led to much smoother operation and made it much easier for the players to bend notes up as well as down. And the Saddle-Lock Bridge used a small Allen screw on the side to reduce lateral movement of the separate string saddles, improving tuning stability and sustain at the same time by preventing the saddles from moving, and allowing – or maybe a better term is forcing – them to vibrate with each other instead of against each other. 

Today, Fender, Music Man (under the ownership of the Ernie Ball company) and G&L are all going strong. Leo’s spirit of innovation – and his ability to bring in collaborators who could help him realise his ideas and contribute their own too – is seen and heard every day, from the smallest garage band to the biggest stadium acts.

 

REVIEW: G&L Legacy Special

The G&L guitar company was founded by original Fender legends Leo Fender and George Fullerton, along with Dale Hyatt, in the late 1970s. After taking some time out from guitar design, Leo initially worked with Music Man before deciding to start up a new company to further refine his classic designs of the 40s and 50s. To this day G&L guitars are hand made on Fender Avenue in Fullerton, California, the spiritual birthplace of Leo’s original guitar designs.

Leo’s original designs were quite revolutionary, and that’s why they’re still in use today, but with G&L he felt he could offer a new perspective on his old designs. Some of these innovations include the dual-fulcrum vibrato, which anchors on two pivot points to improve tuning stability and tonal transfer; the G&L Saddle-Lock bridge, which uses an Allen screw to lock bridge saddles in place (a design feature occasionally found in the work of some other companies); and George Fullerton’s patented tilt neck mechanism, which allows easy adjustment of the neck angle without having to hassle with shims and guesswork.

The G&L Legacy Special uses Leo’s 54 and 62 Stratocaster designs as a starting point, but adds the G&L Dual Fulcrum bridge, special bi-cut neck, and a combination of two G&L DualBlade pickups in the neck and middle and a PowerBlade humbucker in the bridge. The G&L Legacy model, minus the ‘Special’ designation, uses a trio of Magnetic Field Design humbucking pickups designed by Leo).

The Stratocaster inspiration is obvious from a quick glance at the Legacy Special, but the distinctive design of the bridge immediately sets it apart from its older brother. The sheer amount of steel looks like it would add gobs of sustain, something Strats aren’t traditionally known for. The headstock too is a departure from Leo’s earlier design, but if you examine it closely, it actually appears to be created by following a traditional Stratocaster contour until the B string tuning peg, where it juts inward to end with the standard smaller Telecaster scroll.

The locking Schaller tuners add further heft to the headstock while keeping tuning nice and stable in the face of wild whammy bar antics, and the fretboard radius is surprisingly flat compared to a Fender Stratocaster. Underneath the G&L logo on the headstock is written “Guitars By Leo” – a nice touch. Frets are absolutely flawless, with mirror-clean finishing and a very tactile rounding to the edges. It instantly gives the guitar a played-in feel. Also interesting to note is the massive depth of the neck itself. It’s one of the deepest I’ve seen on a bolt-on electric, second only to that of the original Jeff Beck Strat. It’s an impressive chunk of wood but it still fits snugly and comfortably in the hand, proving you don’t need a ruler-thin neck for playing comfort.

Finish on the review model is jet black, matched by a black/white/black three ply pick guard, and black controls and pickups. There are many colour options available, but perhaps my personal favourite is the butterscotch body with black pick guard, which reminds me of the custom Strat-style guitar Frank Zappa played in the 80s. The twin-blade pickups themselves look like exactly what they are: painstakingly handmade. There’s a roughness to the finish which, far from looking cheap, actually makes them look more impressive and ‘big-time.’ The blades also nicely echo the frets, adding to the visual flow of the instrument.

Picking up the Legacy Special, once again the impression is of a serious, ‘big boy’s guitar.’ It’s heavy and sturdy and it seems to have a presence about it that commands attention, and this impression is verified by a single unplugged strum. I’ve never heard an unplugged solid body electric sound this loud and full. You could just mic it up and have a perfectly usable clean tone for recording.

The flatter fretboard radius is especially well suited to huge wide bends with great pitch accuracy, and it also makes light work of big chord stretches.

The bridge pickup has a chewy, hot attack and nice warm overtones, and is surprisingly suitable for metal rhythms. The middle and neck pickups have a single coil vibe with hotter output and no noise, with a slight scooped mid tone and hairy highs. Despite its somewhat classic looks it puts out a rather modern tone, and while it can cover a lot of tonal bases, it always retains its own character. You can still hear the tone of the wood no matter what pickup selection or gain level you use.

The PTB tone system consists of a master treble cut and a master bass cut, instead of the pair of tone controls you would expect from this design. It’s an especially tidy solution for fine-tuning clean rhythm guitar tones, and can also take some of the wool out of the distorted tone at higher gain levels, opening up the sound a little more for increased dynamics.

The Legacy Special is a great jack of all trades guitar, yet it still retains its individual character. Like Leo Fender’s early guitars, it too feels like it would survive 50 years of use and still be at the top of its game. It’s also a good option for heavier players who want to dip their toe in the waters of Stratocaster ownership but want something a little more sleek and industrial.

PICKUPS: 2 G&L Dual Blade and 1 G&L Power Blade humbucking pickups
BODY WOOD: Alder on Standard and all solid finishes, Swamp Ash on all Premier finishes
NECK: Hard Rock Maple with Rosewood or Maple fingerboard
NECK RADIUS: 12″ (304.8mm)
NECK WIDTH AT NUT: 1 5/8″ (41.3mm)
TUNING KEYS: 6:1 ratio locking machine, sealed lubrication, adjustable knob tension
BRIDGE: G&L Dual Fulcrum vibrato with chrome-plated brass saddles
CONTROLS: 5 position pickup selector, PTB system
FINISH: Standard finishes

I can’t seem to find a shopping link among my affiliates for the exact model reviewed, but I found this, which looks awesome: G&L Legacy Electric Guitar with Tinted Maple Neck Blonde

REVIEW: G&L L-2500 5 string bass

The G&L story is quite a familiar one by now. Leo Fender and George Fullerton formed the company in 1980 to carry on the work begun in the 40s by Leo’s former, somewhat successful guitar company. Along the way they created such classic instruments as the Legacy and ASAT, as well as the Rampage model favoured by Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell.

Leo Fender invented the electric bass at Fender, so you would expect any such instrument from either of his namesake companies to be something pretty special. So how does the L-2500 stack up?

SPEC CHECK
The L-2500 is a 5-string bass which mates a swamp ash top to an American tilia back, with a bolt-on maple neck and rosewood or maple fretboard. The frets are a little smaller that I would expect in width, and also in height, but it all adds up for playing comfort and helps to offset any learning curve associated with the soft vintage V-shaped neck profile.

The test bass was finished is a gorgeous honey colour that’s practically edible, but it’s available in a range of finishes. Tuning keys are G&L’s Ultra-Lite design, and they are very solid in both operation and stability. The bridge is G&L’s innovating saddle lock design, with brass saddles for extra tonal punch. Electronics are a pair of G&L humbuckers which feed an active/passive preamp system consisting of 3 pots and 3 mini toggle switches.

CLEAN UP IN AISLE 3
Okay, now that the specs are out of the way… this is one heck of a bass. It feels like it’s a living, breathing thing, and notes sustain practically for days. The natural unplugged tone is good enough and full enough that it you were able to mic it up adequately, it could sit perfectly well within a pro mix – and it only gets better once you plug it in.

In terms of attack the L-2500 responds equally well to pick or fingers, and rolling back the treble makes way for a powerful, resonant John Paul Jones sound. The preamp system includes a 3 way toggle for pickup selection, another for series or parallel operation, and yet another to turn the preamp off, on, or on with a high end EQ boost. It might sound complicated but the only tricky thing about it is figuring out which sound to use, since they’re all great. With the flick of a switch you can go from a meat-and-potatoes rock sound to a hi-fi studio funk sound and back again. It’s exhilarating to have such versatility in a single instrument, and while other companies might try to pack a variety of sounds like this into their basses, what makes the L-2500 special is that each of its voices sounds good enough and ‘real’ enough that each could stand on their own if it was the only sound offered by the bass.

GIMMIEGIMMIEGIMMIE
I would be quite comfortable – in fact ecstatic – to add a bass like this to my recording arsenel and I’m a little sad to have to give it back after the review. The perfect playability means there’s nothing to get in the way of playing exactly what you hear in your head, while the huge range of tones means you can summon any sound you need with a minimum of fuss.

CLICK HERE to buy the G&L L-2500 5-String Bass Guitar Natural Gloss Rosewood from Music123 for $1,575.

PICKUPS: 2 G&L Magnetic Field humbucking pickups
BODY WOOD: Swamp Ash top on American Tilia back
NECK WOOD: Hard Rock Maple with Rosewood or Maple fingerboard
NECK RADIUS: 12″ (304.8mm)
NECK WIDTH AT NUT: 1 3/4″ (44.5mm)
TUNING KEYS: Custom G&L “Ultra-Lite” with aluminum tapered string posts
BRIDGE: G&L Saddle Lock with string through body configuration; chrome-plated brass saddles
CONTROLS: G&L Tri-Tone active/passive electronics, 3-way mini-toggle pickup selector, series/parallel mini-toggle, preamp control mini-toggle (off/on/on with high end EQ boost)
FINISH: Standard finishes included
OTHER: Chrome hardware; no pickguard; G&L molded hardcase included

INTERVIEW: Seymour Duncan & Evan Skopp

Seymour Duncan is a legend in the guitar world. His pickups have been integral in some of the greatest guitar tones in rock history, and his company’s more recent forays into pedals and acoustic guitar processing are already attaining legendary status. I spoke to Seymour Duncan himself, as Evan Skopp, Seymour Duncan’s VP of Marketing and one of the brains behind the company’s new D-TAR brand of acoustic guitar sound solutions.

The D-TAR (Duncan-Turner Acoustic Research) company is a collaborative effort with legendary luthier and amplification expert Rick Turner. Their new Mama Bear processor is a revolutionary device which takes the signal from any acoustic guitar and remodels it to sound like other designs. “Rick has had a kind of legendary career,” Skopp says. “He started off as the guitar player in the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, then he was the soundman for the Grateful Dead. He pretty much invented the outdoor amplification concept, founded Alembic instruments, was president of Gibson’s West Coast R&D lab, and also had a guitar company, Turner Guitars. One of the most famous Turner guitars was the model played by Lindsay Buckingham. In a lot of ways Rick is to the acoustic amplification world what Seymour is to the electric amplification world. What Rick brought to this focus group was some really far out and amazing ideas. One of the ideas was that acoustic pickups had pretty much reached maturity in terms of the design, meaning using piezo film was not going to improve that much on the sound of the guitar. You can use secondary sources and EQS, but using current technology we’ve pretty much reached the limit of what we can do. Rick said the future is in the digital realm, because once you take the signal from an acoustic guitar and bring it into the digital realm, you can give it algorithms to do certain things. For instance, you can remove the artefacts that the pickup brings into the digital signal, and as long as you’re doing that you can do additional manipulation, for instance layer the sounds of other guitars.”

Over the years Seymour Duncan has learned from some of the best in the business, and is happy to pass on the knowledge he’s acquired. “When I was eleven or twelve I saw Les Paul in concert and I met him backstage,” he tells. “Les Paul actually explained to me what an electric guitar pickup was, and to this day he remembers that and I have a copy of an interview he did on talkback radio talking about me, this eleven or twelve year old kid that used to hang out and ask him about guitar pickups. When I first came to California I called Leo Fender up and asked him “why did you do this, why did you do that?” I was fascinated by the history of the pickups and how they were made. Here I was, a 16 year old kid asking him about the first Telecaster bass, the Esquire, Jaguar… I was very fortunate to meet people like Leo Fender and Seth Lover. Seth Lover was such a great mentor to me. I’ve interviewed him, and it was very interesting to find out how things were done. People like Leo, Les Paul, Seth Lover and guitar players like Jeff Beck. These guys gave me something and I like to be able to give it back.”

Seymour is the only ‘non-famous-guitarist’ to have a Fender signature model. “I’ve always loved Esquires, so it’s based on my old Esquire. It has a black pick guard, an Esquire maple neck. It had one of my early tapped pickups and special wiring. Jeff Beck has used it many times. It’s one of those guitars that, everybody that plays it loves it.” Skopp, who helped oversee the project, says the Fender Seymour Duncan Signature Esquire features a few of Seymour’s guitar set-up secrets, as well as a specially wound Seymour Duncan pickup. “Seymour’s a great player,” Skopp says. “Midway between Jeff Beck and Danny Gatton.”

One of Seymour Duncan’s most well-known pickup combinations is the JB model in the bridge and the Jazz in the neck. “That’s what I use in my “TeleGib,” Seymour says. “The first set I did for Jeff Beck. That’s neat that guitar, because he used it, Peter Frampton used it. A lot of other guitar players have played this guitar so it’s kinda neat to have a guitar with a conversation piece feel to it, so we give others a chance to play it too.”

This interview originally appeared in Mixdown magazine in 2006.

CLICK HERE to buy the Dtar Mama Bear Digital Acoustic Preamp from Music123.

CLICK HERE to buy the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB Humbucker Pickup (Black) from Music123.

CLICK HERE to buy the Seymour Duncan SH-2N Jazz Model Pickup (Black) from Music123.